Reading the recent story of Diego Sanchez blowing through (and being conned out of) his money after the loss to B.J. Penn made me recall sitting on the couch around Christmas a few years ago with a family friend. He was a near seven-foot-tall kid, not far removed from a solid college basketball career that left him as a player some NBA teams took an interest in drafting in the second round. While the call didn't come on draft night, he was still fortunate enough to land a deal to play ball overseas.
The always-popular sports cliche story of long lost relatives showing up along with the professional sports contract came up. It was interesting to hear a first hand account of the numerous strories of "you don't remember me, but I knew you when you were just a little kid" and "I need a loan to get this business off the ground." And this was for a kid who hasn't yet made it to the top of the mountain.
The concept of athletes as walking financial support for family and friends is not just some Hollywood invention.
It's just one of the many issues that lead to a sobering reality for professional athletes. According to Sports Illustrated, 78% of NFL players are bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of retirement. That number sits at 60% for NBA players. And these are athletes who are playing in sports with a comparatively huge minimum salary as compared to mixed martial artists.
The Sanchez story is sadly common for successful pro athletes. From MMA Weekly:
The person, whose name Sanchez did not mention, embezzled over $170,000 of the money he earned in the UFC Octagon. This was reality giving Sanchez a harsh slap in the face.
"I let some bad influences get into my life and it was a downward spiral. It was like a tornado sucking everything in," he recalled. "I let a person that I thought was a friend, a real close friend, someone that would help me with finances, I had him helping me out with stuff. Turned out I got embezzled for over $170,000. He conned me. I got conned so bad. And in the same time when I got conned, I was just wasting the money that I had earned."
Being taken for significant sums of money is not uncommon. Far too many athletes fall into the trap of letting friends or family run their finances. Any number of things can go wrong, from a person who can barely balance a check book suddenly being put in charge of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars and not understanding proper fiscal management to the slow bleed of embezzlement.
These athletes didn't get to the pinnacle of the sport by being "numbers guys" so they trust that they're being taken care of, leaving themselves open to the kind of trap that Ryan Sheckler fell into.
Skateboarding pro Sheckler hired family friend Matthew Mercuro as CFO of two of his business units, only to see Mercuro transfer over $350,000 into several personal accounts.
Mercuro's punishment? A plea for 18 days in jail and an order to pay back $100,000 to have the charges reduced to misdemeanors.
Hype or Die, Inspirational or Sobering?
The threat of post-career financial hardship is, obviously, not limited to those at the championship and title contender level.
Many fans saw the story of Pat Barry's hardships before his win and Fight of the Night/Knockout of the Night performance against Antoni Hardonk as inspirational. Barry said that he was on the verge of being evicted and had been reduced to eating ketchup and rice before scoring the knockout win and $120,000 in fight bonuses.
The story of a disheveled Barry having to convince the bank teller that the check was legit was fun, but it seemed to make people miss the real point: Barry was fighting on the biggest stage in the sport and was barely able to eat and keep a roof over his head.
This was his third fight in under a year and he would only fight once more in the next 14 months, earning a disclosed payday of $11,000 for his loss to Mirko Filipovic. While he may have been able to live with considerably more comfort during that time thanks to the Hardonk fight and the bonuses it provided, Barry is almost certainly not in a position where he'll be able to retire off the money he made from fighting.
That's not to say that the UFC should be paying out huge sums of money up and down the card to set these guys up for life. They shouldn't unless they want to go out of business. But it does show that most guys in this sport will not make enough money to retire on after spending most of their prime earning years fighting. This will lead to guys bouncing around the local circuits for far too long and having to try to find other ways to earn after the career is over.
Even Nature Boys and Pac-Men
No one has made more money over the past few years in combat sports than Manny Pacquiao. A huge box office attraction, politician and pound-for-pound #1, Manny would seem to have the world at his command. Instead, Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach says "He's broke because of that [his political career] and all the people he flies around to his fights. He goes through money like you wouldn't believe. He can't say no."
Scott Christ of Bad Left Hook touches on the reality of the situation:
But greater men than Pacquiao have been undone by poor money handling. For those who aren't wrestling fans, you don't need to be one to appreciate the story of "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling for four decades, considered by many to be the greatest of all-time in his industry, who is now a struggling old man. It has happened, of course, to countless great boxers. It will happen to many of the men we consider great in today's game, and make no mistake, Manny Pacquiao could be one of them.
What's worrisome about all of this is pretty obvious, of course. It's never fun to watch once-great fighters so broke they have to sacrifice their bodies to pay the bills in the twilight years of their professional careers. Remember what Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr used to be? A lot of people have started to forget. Even guys who weren't quite so big in the name brand department, like Joel Casamayor, now continue to fight past their expiration date because they have to do so. There's really no other option. Shane Mosley has looked awful in three straight fights, and yet there's no indication he's going to hang up the gloves. The list could go on and on.
Pacquiao may be one of the biggest victims of the hangers on that sports has ever seen. He has made an incredible amount of money in his career but is broke because he has become the support system for a large group of people who are nothing more than "friends" and in many ways seems to feel like he needs to find ways to support his entire country.
It's this idea that led Dana White to say of Jon Jones' success "It's actually scary. When you get to this point, I worry about guys. There's cling-ons all over, I'm sure, waiting to just [expletive] barnacle right on to him."
Being the best simply doesn't guarantee you a stable financial future.
Gyms Aren't the Answer
For many, the idea of opening their own gym seems to be the idea of a stable financial future. But there are a plethora of risks involved here as well.
- Has the fighter saved up enough money to be able to take the hit when hard times come (and they will come) for the business?
- If the gym is running while the fighter is still active in his career, the risks of leaving a friend or family member in charge exist just like putting them in charge of finances.
- What happens when the UFC opens a "UFC Gym" in your area? Can your business survive in a fully competitive environment?
A few guys may live comfortably owning their gym, and if they built up a big enough name from fighting that can carry them a little ways but being a mid-card guy from the UFC or Strikeforce may simply not be a big enough draw to build up your client base when Larry has been "teaching UFC" since he converted his taekwondo gym three years ago?
And should the gym go under, it's yet another way for a fighter to have lost it all.
It's not that the future of all mixed martial artists is doom and gloom. There's simply a sobering reality that many of the men we cheer for will not have the futures that we hope for.
It's easy for fans to laugh at a man like Ken Shamrock and call for his retirement while he trudges around the world and now is lined up to fight James Toney. But Ken has no other choice. As fans we're stuck between not wanting to see him damage his reputation and body any further and knowing that there is no comfortable retirement for him.
Ken's own choices and mistakes in his life led to where he is now. A once huge star in MMA who made larger paydays than almost anyone in the sport plus a turn as a superstar in the WWE should have left Shamrock with a decent post-fighting life. But the same problems that come up for so many athletes came up for Ken.
And other fighters will make their own version of Ken's mistakes, and many more will never make enough money to even be in a position to screw up so badly.
We can just hope that fighters take away just as much from the UFC's financial advice at the Fighter Summit as they take away about twitter bonuses. Dana White had it right:
"Not everybody is going to make millions and millions of dollars," White said Tuesday during his welcoming remarks to the athletes in the first session at the Red Rock Casino Resort in Las Vegas. "Some guys do. Some guys will. Some guys make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some guys make just enough money to buy a nice house, pay it off, and maybe buy a car and stash some money away. When you move on to that next chapter in your life, you have some pretty cool stuff. You don't want to [mess] that up. You don't want to blow that.
"You don't want someone else running your business. You are your business. You should know everything about it, no matter how much you trust whoever is handling your [money]. You should know 100 percent what is going on with your life and with your business."
If fighters learn to not spend recklessly, acknowledge that their prime earning years in the sport are extremely limited, invest a little money and have a solid career to fall back on after they retire, they'll have a decent life.
All we can do as fans is hope they make the right decisions during their career. But that's sadly too rare for athletes at the pro level.